The Power of Being Seen (with Tracey Robertson)
This episode spotlights Tracey Robertson, a nonprofit leader and community organizer who was tired of hearing her neighbors repeat stereotypes she knew were not true. She figured that to change the narrative, people needed to be able to see each other more clearly, as complex individuals each with a story to share. In this episode, we learn about a project called Color-Brave that evolved from conversations in a coffee shop to a traveling exhibit and book. You'll meet Mushe and Shawn, featured in Color-Brave, and the photographer and museum curator who made it possible.
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Color-Brave at the Paine Art Center & Gardens
Above, photographer Colleen Bies stands with Aaron Sherer, the executive director of the Paine Art Center and Gardens in front of the Color-Brave exhibit. The Color-Brave project was organized by Tracey Robertson and Fit Oshkosh. It opened in 2018 at the Paine before traveling to locations in Oshkosh, Appleton, and Fond du Lac.
The Color-Brave Photo Project: Black and Brown Faces, A New Narrative was created to shift some common stereotypes about people of color in Oshkosh, to explore the negative impacts these false narratives have on the entire community, and to celebrate black and brown residents.
For the project, each person was interviewed. First-person narratives accompany each portrait. They were written with the help of scholars to show that people of color do not all have the same experiences and to raise awareness about barriers they face. Wherever the exhibit went, hosts organized community conversations with humanities experts and FIT Oshkosh facilitators. This project was funded in part with a grant from Wisconsin Humanities.
- Read a news article about the project here.
- The Color-Brave photo gallery can be found here. Click on each photo to read the narrative.
- Buy a copy of the Color-Brave book here! All proceeds go to support social justice work done by Wisconsin non-profits.
- The term Color-Brave comes from a TED talk given by Mellody Hobson in 2014. She says conversations about race can be very touchy, but that's exactly why we need to start talking about it. Watch the talk here.
Mushe Subulwa's Color-Brave Story
I am African, from Zambia. I first came to the US in 2006 to join my wife Angela at the University of Kansas, where she was finishing her PhD. I come from a place where I am in the majority, and where the beliefs of what it means to be an African—“ubuntu,” meaning “I am who I am because of us”—is instilled in us from the beginning. That’s very different from the individualistic society of America. It has taken me some time to fit in here, where it is not understood we all support each other.
We moved to Oshkosh in 2008. Before I even got a chance to know where black people live in the city, law enforcement visited me at my home. And it was not really nice. I was sitting on the porch, talking on the phone to my nephews and my mom back home, when police cruisers arrived. The police start yelling at me, “Put the phone down!” and “Do you have an ID?” After my wife calmed them down, they told us our neighbors called to say there was a black person here. It was that stereotype that all black people come to Oshkosh for drugs or to commit crimes.
My wife and I have two boys. In our neighborhood, there are lots of kids. They play. They leave their toys on the sidewalk. One day we hear this parent call her son to come home, and she tells him, “You better pick up all your stuff out there before those n-word kids steal it.” My son does not understand this. He is asking me what she is trying to say. I am having a hard time trying to explain to my son that he is perceived to be a thief because he is black.
Why should it be only our responsibility—us as people of color—to teach our children and our friends how to behave?
Photo by Colleen Bies. All the Color-Brave photos and stories can be found here.
Colleen: Purely by accident, when I was seventeen, I went to go see an army recruiter. I thought I was going to see a Peace Corps recruiter, but I was very, very wrong! When I came home from school that day, my dad inquired as to why I came home from school late. I started to tell him what happened, but I didn’t get to the punchline.
He began to say that I was a female. I was weak. I shouldn’t do anything. I shouldn’t strive for anything. The best thing that I could do was to get married and be a good wife and mom. Looking back, I don’t blame him. I don’t have any ill resentment towards him about that. For my father coming from the kind of world and environment that he came from, he did genuinely believe that the best kind of life I could have was to be a mom and a wife. It wasn’t necessarily that he was trying to insult me. He was trying to push what he thought was genuinely the best for me. That all happened on a Monday, and by Wednesday, I was raising my right hand—swearing into the military. That has forever changed the trajectory of my life in the very best way possible. I would not be who I am today, if all of that didn’t happen.
They say there’s that one moment in your life that really changes everything. That was my one moment.
Read the whole story on Love Wisconsin, a digital storytelling project that celebrates our state, our lives, and our shared future.
Tracey: I had a friend who lived in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, and my children and I would visit her all the time. When the time came to make a move, Oshkosh seemed like a place where I’d have some familiarity and support. It seemed the right place to go.
I moved, and for a year I tried to find my way into the community. I was working for a company that taught computer literacy skills to seniors. It was a very rewarding job: helping seniors learn digital skills, document their stories, and connect with their loved ones. And yet my first year in Oshkosh felt very lonely. I didn’t see many people who looked like me. I kind of felt like I had landed on the wrong planet, to be honest. I enjoyed my job, but I really struggled to find my footing here.
Part of it was that as soon as I arrived people would ask me absurd things, like, ‘Did you move here for the prison?’ Or they would say other racist comments to me. My daughter moved here a year later, and we were both consistently being pulled over by the police without due cause. I’d been stopped six times within the first year and a half of living here. I was never ticketed, never cited. Just stopped.
Read the whole story on Love Wisconsin, a digital storytelling project designed to bring about a more connected, compassionate, and engaged Wisconsin.
Tracey Robertson co-founded and directed Fit Oshkosh, Inc from 2014-2020. Fit Oshkosh, Inc. was a non-profit social justice organization with the mission to promote social transformation, race equity, and justice through Color-Brave conversations, education, advocacy, and research. Tracey specializes in anti-racist curriculum development and has delivered workshops to clients across the United States and Canada. Her 2017 TedX Oshkosh Talk, “Black Girls Aren’t Magic,” received a standing ovation and has been viewed worldwide. She is currently a trainer with Quad Consulting DEI Consultants.
Colleen Bies was born and raised in Wisconsin. Prior to her role as Regional Project Director for Wisconsin Women’s Business Initiative Corporation (WWBIC), Colleen served in the Army National Guard, worked in finance, and created 2 businesses as an entrepreneur. Married for 14 years and a big believer in community, her work is dedicated to servicing her community and supporting her family. You can find Colleen's 2019 TEDxOshkosh talk on Why Children of Immigrants Work so Hard here and her photography here.
Mushe Subulwa is the Director of SEPO Zambia, a non-profit dedicated to sustainability, education, and progress in western Zambia. Subulwa received the Daisy Frazier Social Justice Award in 2019 for his work with SEPO Zambia.
Shawn Anthony Robinson, Ph.D. is a leading scholar on African American boys with dyslexia. Dr. Robinson has over 40 publications and is a public speaker, consultant, and educator. He is affiliated with Wisconsin’s Equity & Inclusion Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin Madison, Madison Area Technical College, American University, and an active Board member with the International Dyslexia Association. His goal is to change the narrative around dyslexia. His website can be found here.
Aaron Sherer has served as the Executive Director of the Paine Art Center and Gardens since 2002. Sherer leads a varied exhibitions program, including shows by artists such as Dale Chihuly, Normal Rockwell, and Ansel Adams, as well as lamps by Louis Comfort Tiffany and costumes from the television show Downton Abbey. Sherer also initiated the annual Nutcracker in the Castle holiday presentation, now preparing for its 15th year, and he has overseen more than $10 million of historic preservation and capital improvements to the historic estate. Sherer lives in Oshkosh with his husband and four sons.
Host: Jimmy Gutierriez
Senior Producer: Craig Eley
Producers: Jessica Becker, Jen Rubin, and Jade Iseri-Ramos
Executive Producers: Brijetta Hall Waller and Dena Wortzel
Photographers: Shawna Schwalenberg from LotusFly Photography, Jessica Becker and Colleen Bies